Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Empathy

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Focus Questions[edit]

After reading this chapter you will be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is Empathy?
  • What are the two major theories in empathy research?
  • What happens in our brain when we empathise with someone?
  • How does empathy develop over the lifespan?
  • What is psychopathy and what is autism?
  • Are there differences in empathy between males and females?
  • What are the differences in empathy expression between cultures?

Empathy - Definition[edit]

Some children in Bangladesh sharing each others' happiness

Imagine taking a walk in a park on a beautiful sunny day. The air is fresh and crisp, the grass is green, and as you walk past a playground some kids are laughing and swinging on the monkey bars. Your mind drifts back to when you were a kid, and how fun and simple life was. Suddenly, you hear a thud, and look over in alarm as one of the kids slips off and falls to the ground. Her face screws up and she begins to cry, and you feel a rush of emotion and an impulse to run over and see if she is OK, or at least check to see if a parent is nearby who can help out. What’s more, if you walk away without doing anything, you will feel a rush of guilt and remorse, and wish that you had stayed to help. What is this powerful emotion that suddenly appeared? And why do you suddenly want to ease this child’s pain when you don’t even know her?

Empathy is an automatic response to another’s emotional state, and involves putting ourselves in the shoes of others. When we feel empathy for someone, we feel a part of the emotion they are feeling, for example when we see someone in pain, we feel a part of the pain, too. In fact, our brains have specific neurons which fire to replicate an emotion we simply see in another person. These are called ‘mirror neurons’ (see Neurological Basis for more info).

Sympathy is similar to empathy, however it is not the same - sympathy involves seeing another in distress and feeling sorry for them or experiencing concern, not actually feeling a part of their emotion (Smith, 2009). Hoffman defined empathy as "an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own" (2000, p. 4). Empathy is a prosocial behaviour, a behaviour that is important and beneficial to social interaction, and has been important in the survival of the human race. It is uniquely directed towards others – other emotions such as distress and anxiety are focused on the self. Empathy is also a sign of a healthy individual – it indicates no pathology (Trout, 2009), and is common to all people in all parts of the world. In Indonesia, the community will all pitch in to help one another out, for example if one person’s house burns down the others will raise funds to rebuild. The Javanese term for empathy is gotong-royang (Trout, 2009, p. 27). For more information on cultures and empathy see Cultural Differences.

Theories and Theorists[edit]

When we see someone in pain we feel empathy. Here, President George W. Bush comforts victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The study of empathy is a relatively new field. Traditionally, psychology has focused on abnormalities of humans and their existence, centering mostly on psychopathology. It is only recently that a new branch of psychology has opened up, called Positive Psychology, in which the positive aspects and motivations of people are being studied. One of these is empathy, a prosocial behaviour.


There are two major theoretical components to empathy – the cognitive component and the affective component. The affective component is the automatic emotion we feel when we see someone in distress or pain. Also called ‘emotional empathy’ it is the emotional part in which we feel what the other person is feeling (Hoffman, 2000).

The cognitive component is more about understanding what a person might be feeling based on rules we have picked up, for example if a person has broken their leg they will likely be in pain. Cognitive empathy requires an understanding of Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on what you believe they will think and feel in that situation. We must understand ToM to feel empathy – in order to feel for someone, we must understand that they are their own person, and that they too have a mind. This may well be the core basis for some empathy deficits, for example people with autism may not understand the ToM concept (Boyd, 2008), explaining their apparent lack of empathy.

As with most psychological theories, neither is ‘right’ – they are just different ways of thinking. It is most likely that the true nature of empathy lies in a middle road between these two viewpoints, that it is a combination of automatic processing and previous understanding.

Prominent theorists[edit]

Different backgrounds of study mean theorists view empathy in different ways. Social psychologists regard empathy as important for motivating prosocial behaviour (Batson, 1991 cited in Decety & Meyer, 2008). Developmental psychologists study the onset of empathy, and say it plays a critical role in moral development (Hoffman, 2001 cited in Decety & Meyer, 2008). And neuroscientists are naturally most interested in the neurological aspects of empathy.

A prominent theorist in the field of empathy is Martin L. Hoffman. He views empathy as the glue that makes social life possible (Hoffman, 2000). He says that while it is fragile, empathy has endured through evolutionary history and may continue as long as humans exist. Hoffman’s definition of empathy is "an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own" (Hoffman, 2000, p. 4).

One of Hoffman’s main contributions to the field of empathy is his theory of five different types of empathy. The first of these he calls the innocent bystander who witnesses someone in pain or distress, and must use empathy to decide whether or not to help the person, and how they will feel if they do not help. The second type is a transgressor, when someone harms or is about to harm someone else and chooses between ceasing to harm or following through and feeling guilty about it later. A virtual transgressor is a mix of the above two, and is when someone believes they have hurt someone even though they are innocent. The fourth involves multiple moral claimants where a person is forced to make a moral decision between two behaviours, and must decide who to help and how they will feel by neglecting one choice over the other. The last type of empathy is caring or justice, when people are faced with an issue they must decide whether to follow the caring or justice path (Hoffman, 2000). Hoffman has helped to broaden the scope of empathy research, and to highlight differences in empathy which might not be first realised.

Theorist Jean Decety has also contributed a lot to the research on emapthy. He defines empathy as "an intersubjective induction process by which positive and negative emotions are shared without losing sight of whose feelings belong to whom" (Decety & Meyer, 2008, p. 1053). This definition is quite different to Hoffman’s, however still describes the experience of empathy quite well. Decety’s main field of study is neuroscience, and so he has contributed to the research on empathy through looking at the brain and what happens inside when a person experiences empathy. Teamed with researcher Meghan Meyer in 2008, Decety wrote a paper that looked at the role of mirror neurons in the brain and emapthy, and the cognitive and neurological aspects of empathy-related disorders.

These are two important researchers in the area, however there are many more. Please see Empathy on Wikipedia for further names of theorists.

Neurological Basis[edit]

The human brain.

The beginnings of empathy lie in the brain. When a person empathises with another person, their brain triggers neurons that match the neurons in the brain of the person in distress. Or quite simply, just by perceiving an emotion in someone the neuron mechanisms that are responsible for that emotion in our brains are switched on. This phenomenon was first discovered from studies on rhesus monkeys, in which a class of neurons called mirror neurons were found in the ventral premotor and posterior parietal cortices in the brain. (Rizzolatti, Fogassi & Gallese, 2001 cited in Decety & Meyer, 2008). The evidence for mirror neurons in humans is a little less solid, however studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have found similar results involving pain - when a person perceives someone in pain, the neural circuits for pain in the observer are activated, as if they too are experiencing pain (Decety & Meyer, 2008; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2010).

Researchers also theorise that there are specific neurons present in our brains that fire in response to even simply the facial expression of another person. As this sort of experiment would be prohibited with humans, scientists looked at rhesus monkeys instead. Rhesus monkeys were first trained to associate an electric shock with a tone presented before it, and to therefore fear the tone. They were also taught that they could avoid the electric shock by pressing a lever. Once trained, the researchers put two monkeys into separate cages, able to view each other on small TVs. When the first monkey, but not the second, heard the feared tone, the look of fear on his face was enough for the other monkey to push the lever to prevent the electric shock (Brothers, cited in Goleman, 1996, p. 103).

Empathy theorist Jean Decety also proposes that the experience of empathy likely involves other parts of the brain, such as the frontopariental and prefrontal circuits, as the person empathising must be able to differentiate himself or herself from the person in distress. In addition, executive functions instantiated in the prefrontal cortex may play a part, as this part of the brain helps to regulate emotions and yield mental flexibility (Decety & Meyer, 2008).


Even very small children display the beginnings of empathy.

Empathy is one of the most important ingredients in social situations, in allowing us to bond and connect with others, and so it is present even in very young children.

Young infants develop empathy over five stages. The first is the contagious cry, which is present in infants even a day old. Upon hearing another infant crying, an infant will respond and cry also, possibly mirroring distress and showing the beginnings of synchronicity and empathy (Geangu, Benga, Stahl & Striano, 2010). Infants then progress into egocentric empathic distress, in which children respond to another’s distress as if they too were in distress, as they have not yet understood that they are a separate entity from those around them.

As children grow older and develop, empathy also grows. As they learn to separate themselves from others, preschoolers will react in empathy to another hurt or distressed child. It is common for one child to fall over and hurt his knee, and another child next to them to also cry and hold their knee, even though there is nothing wrong with it. Hoffman named this stage the quasi-egocentric stage (Hoffman, 2000).


This sort of behaviour is prosocial, it enables children as young as preschoolers to connect with another child, and understand their emotional state, thus learning a whole lot of responses and information about other people. And after this stage, children learn the other person is completely different and has their own desires, and also learn to empathise with people not present, and large groups of people (for example the homeless, victims of a bushfire, etc) (Hoffman, 2000).

As children grow into adolescence and young adulthood, empathy continues to develop. In fact, the older people get, the more likely they are to display prosocial behaviour such as empathy. One such study longitudinal study by researchers Eisenberg et al. (2005) tested 32 adolescents from ages 15-16 years as they moved into adulthood (25-26 years). The students were tested on their helping, empathy-related responding and prosocial moral reasoning. The study found that the students’ empathy increased as they got older while their personal distress decreased. Personal distress results in self-focused behaviour that leads the person to act in ways to make him/herself feel better, as opposed to empathy, in which the person acts to make the other feel better (Eisenberg et al.). In general, it appears that the older people get and the better they get at having some control over their emotion, the more likely they are to act in prosocial ways.

Empathy Disorders[edit]

Is Psychopathy Treatable?

Unlike most offenders, psychopaths suffer little personal distress, see nothing wrong with their actions and attitudes and will only seek therapy if it benefits them to do so, for example to be released from prison. Psychopathy seems to be in part genetically based, and has neurobiological origins so is essentially a stable characteristic of the person, like a personality trait (Hare & Neumann, 2009). And psychopaths who have treatment seemingly come away unchanged, or worse, in the case of some psychopaths who were given behavioural therapy.[factual?]

Is there any hope to change this ingrained trait? Christian Keysers, a researcher on psychopaths, believes so. He says he is ‘fascinated by the phenemonon of the untreatable psychopath’ and believes there will one day be a fix or a cure (Abbott, 2007).

Empathy is one of the key ingredients in social situations – it enables us to connect with others, share their emotions, and learn that we are not alone in the world. It also motivates us to understand other people’s state of being, and to help them if the need arises. But what if a person could not feel empathy? What sort of actions might they do if they could not feel the emotions of others?


People who feel no empathy are some of the most widely studied and one of the most scary types of people – the psychopath. Psychopaths feel no empathy for people, and as such many commit horrific crimes without any sense of remorse. Serial killers, serial rapists, and cold-blooded murderers are usually psychopaths – feeling no empathy, they feel no guilt or remorse for what they have done.

Psychopaths also have the skills of being charming and excellent liars, and can manipulate their victims with ease. The heart of the psychopath’s cold, calculating acts appears to be an inability to establish anything more than the shallowest of emotional connections with anyone (Federman, Holmes & Jacob, 2009).

There are a few possible causes for psychopathy. One is that there may be a biological basis to the condition, as it appears to be a stable characteristic of an individual, like a personality trait (Hare & Neumann, 2009). Another possible cause is the lack of any attachment when young (Federman et al., 2009), or that intimidating people and lacking in much empathy may have survival value in violent neighbourhoods (Goleman, 1996).

Case Study: Los Angeles Gangs[edit]

Leon Bing was writing a book about the Los Angeles gangs the Crips and the Bloods. He describes the 'look' seventeen-year-old Faro, a member of a gang, gave him to demonstrate his power:

He looks straight at me and everything about his face shifts and changes, as if by some trick of time-lapse photography. It becomes a nightmare face, and it is a scary thing to see. It tells you that if you return his stare, if you challenge this kid, you’d better be able to stand your ground. His look tells you that he doesn’t care about anything, not your life and not his.

(Goleman, 1996, p. 108)


An fMRI-derived image of autistic and control groups of a visuomotor coordination study. Autistic Group is yellow, the Control Group is blue, and the Overlap is green

Autism is often defined as a pervasive developmental disorder in which the child experiences no empathy. However, researchers actually think that they may experience no cognitive empathy, that is ability to understand and predict the behaviour of others in terms of mental states, but actually feel an excess of emotional or affective empathy, actually feeling a part of what the other person is feeling, so strongly that they are frequently distressed. This is called the Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of empathy (Smith, 2009).

Autism is a lifelong disorder that is diagnosed in childhood. It is characterised by a particular pattern of behaviour characteristics – people with autism are unable to develop typical relations with their peers and have problems using non-verbal behaviours to regulate social interactions. They also develop fixed or unusual interests, and dislike change in routine (Smith, 2009). For more information see Autism on Wikipedia.

Gender Differences[edit]

Both sexes display empathy, but women do so more often

Is there a difference in empathy levels between the sexes? Stereotypically, females are viewed as the more empathetic sex, with the ‘typical’ female seen as caring, nurturing and understanding, with the stereotypical male viewed as ‘the provider’ – strong and less emotional. This is likely in part to socialization of males and females in our society. Males are typically socialised to show less emotion, and to not share their emotions as much with others, whereas females frequently share their emotions, and as thus arguably have more experience with emotions, and may be more likely to be empathetic. Studies have consistently shown that the stereotypes, in terms of emapthy, are actually correct – women do display more empathy then men.

One recent study in 2005 was conducted, which surveyed male and female participants on self-report measures of empathy and forgiveness. The researchers randomly recruited people from public beaches and community parks in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties in California, and had the participants fill in self-report measures on empathy and forgiveness. Of the 127 people interviewed, the women were found to have higher levels of empathy than men, congruent with many previous findings (Batson et al., 1996; Gault & Sabini, 2000 cited in Toussaint & Webb, 2005). However, the results also showed that there was no gender difference in terms of forgiveness, and therefore that empathy did not necessarily predict forgiveness (Toussaint & Webb, 2005). For more info on forgiveness see Wikipedia.

This difference in empathy also shows up when each sex is faced with stress. When men are faced with stress, the typical response is ‘fight-or-flight’, to either attack the threat or react aggressively, or else to flee the situation or avoid the stress. One the other hand, females typically use the ‘tend-and-befriend’ response when under stress – they reach out to others, nurture each other and create and maintain social networks that promote safety and reduce distress for them and their offspring (Taylor et al., 2000). These very differences in coping mechanisms may be why females are more empathetic – empathy is an important part of survival for them and their offspring.

Cultural Differences[edit]

Are there cultural differences in the expression of empathy? Research, on the whole, finds that no, there is not. Empathy is something all humans share in common, and it is in our basic nature as a human person. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, humans and other animals have developed emotions as they are important for survival. Practically all animals feel basic emotions, such as fear and anger, and higher mammals such as dogs, dolphins and monkeys display instances of prosocial behaviour, such as empathy. All humans do this too, empathy is clearly important for our survival as it helps us attend to each others’ needs, keeping people happy and alive.

There are two theories within research on cultural differences in empathy. One is that all cultures in the world experience empathy apparently equally, and the other is concerned with the question of whether it is easier to perceive emotions correctly within your own race as opposed to people from another race (in-group versus out-group).

Soto and Levenson (2009) conducted a study involving African Americans, Chinese Americans, European Americans and Mexican Americans to test these two hypothesis. Unlike previous research, which had used still photography of emotions to test empathic accuracy, these researchers filmed 15 minute interactions of random people with their relationship partners, and had them rate their emotions during the interaction. Empathic accuracy was then tested by comparing the ratings of the couple to the ratings of the participants who watched the film later.

The study found that there was no cultural advantage, that is that participants did not rate the emotions of people from their same culture more accurately than from different cultures. Instead, the results complimented previous results of a cultural equivalence model of empathic accuracy. As previous research indicates it appears that all humans are able to recognise emotions from other humans relatively easily. It appears that it is important to be able to read the emotions and body language of another person, regardless of their culture. Interestingly, the study also found that participants more accurately rated the emotions of Chinese Americans as opposed to Mexican Americans (Soto & Levenson, 2009). As Chinese culture values emotional moderation and Mexican culture values emotional expression, it would be thought that it would be easier to read the more expressive culture’s emotions. However, this was not the case.


Empathy is a prosocial behaviour, and is common to everyone around the world. There are two theoretical components to the study of empathy – the cognitive component and the affective or emotional component. The cognitive component involves understanding what a person might feel in a situation based on information we know about people, and involves knowledge of Theory of Mind. The affective component is when we feel a part of the emotion of someone when we see them in distress.

Empathy is visible in the brain, and likely involves ‘mirror neurons’ which help to replicate the emotion we perceive in our own brains. Empathy begins in children when they are born and gradually develops and matures throughout our lives.

Certain empathy disorders include psychopathy, a stable trait where people feel no empathy for others and often commit horrific crimes, and autism, in which people have trouble with cognitive empathy, so find it difficult to relate to people, but may experience an excess of affective empathy.

In terms of culture and gender, studies consistently show that females display more empathy than males, however there is no difference in empathy expression between cultures.


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Boyd, J. H. (2008). Have we found the holy grail? theory of mind as a unifying construct. Journal of Religion and Health, 47(3), 366-385.

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